The gang is back (by extremely popular demand) Image from VG247
Final Fantasy VII Remake, or at least the first game in a sub-series that will take who knows how long to complete, is exhausting.
It is an experience that will leave you drained physically but mentally satisfied and desperately excited to see how Square-Enix handles the rest of the original’s content. This may well be one of the most ambitious game development undertakings I’ve ever heard of.
If I were to explain what exactly Final Fantasy VII Remake is doing would be like the reversal of a book to film adaptation. A book often has more detail and meat to the overall story it is trying to tell than the film due to time restraints. Now, the original FF7 feels like an abridged adaptation of a bigger story that was able to squeeze several novels into one package.
This first entry into what is officially the Final Fantasy VII Remake Project is like the first book in a series. To further extrapolate, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one huge book, but at the behest of his editors and publishers, was pushed into transforming it into a trilogy of novels.
Square-Enix’s ambitions at giving the ever dedicated fanbase their long sought after remake of their flagship series’ most beloved entry seems like it wants both its developers and its playerbase to spend as much time as possible returning to this beloved world and cast of characters.
The result more often than not does feel like a reverse Lord of the Rings adaptation, where the shorter movie(s) came first and the lengthier novels came second. It rarely ventures into feeling like a bloated expansion similar to the derided Hobbit film trilogy.
The first six-seven hours of the 1997 FF7 take place entirely within the confines of the dystopic walled city of Midgar, run by the ruthlessly unethical Shinra Power Company with its just as morally bankrupt President of the same name. So too does the entirety of this game.
In order to feel like a standalone game in its own right rather than a disconnected piece of a bigger picture, new narrative elements are added, including a vastly different ending scenario than what happens at the point in the original. An ending that re-contextualizes what exactly this game is also meant to be.
Final Fantasy VII, past and present, has you take on the blonde, spiky haired mantle of Cloud Strife, a mercenary and former member of an elite military program called rather bluntly SOLDIER. He starts off the game as just a man looking for a paycheck but the wide ranging events he finds himself embroiled in along with one hell of a mysterious past pushes him into a purpose far more meaningful than staying fiscally afloat.
Cloud starts off as a hired sword for an eco-terrorist group called Avalanche, with its leader, Barret, toeing the line once again between being a black gun-arm toting badass as well as being too stereotypical for his own good.
He does use less slang than the original and is shown to be more multifaceted than before, on top of still being a loving, adoptive father to the cutest little girl you could possibly picture in your head.
Shinra powers Midgar and the developed world with Mako energy, which consists of the literal life essence of the planet. As it was back in the day, FF7 Remake isn’t so much subtle in the big picture as it is in the details surrounding the obvious but sharp environmental commentary. It’s honestly a more meaningful piece of subject matter with climate change becoming more than ever an unavoidable consequence of present day.
What makes FF7, old and new, work better than other eco-friendly scribes like Cameron’s Avatar or Ferngully is that for every bold-faced villain that Cloud and friends will confront like scenery-chewing guffawer and Shinra second Heidegger, voiced by the legendary John Dimaggio (“Bite my Shinra metal ass!”), there’s also the Turks, the CIA/NSA equivalent for the company.
Despite their morally unscrupulous job description, at least two of the Turks come off as affable, conscious of what they are and their misgivings about the bad things that they do for the company. They work for the bad guys, yet I at least can’t completely bring myself to call Reno and Rude entirely bad.
Reno is a cocky yet very talented stun baton-wielding enforcer that can move lightning fast and Rude is a dead serious bruiser who has surprising soft spots that betray his formidable demeanor. There is also Tseng, the leader of the Turks who is much less worth forgiving but still manages to be unfailingly and earnestly polite to friend and foe.
A scene where he tries to ease the guilty consciousnesses of Rude and Reno proves that even the eco-unfriendly antagonists are not expendable targets for our heroes to eventually overcome. I can’t forget Reeve, the Urban Planner for Midgar and the one honest to god decent higher-up that Shinra has, constantly striving in vain to make the lives of all of Midgar’s citizens better.
Another way that FF7 makes its blunt but effective politics known other than showcasing ecological recklessness if not destruction is through the classic drama of the class divide. Midgar is made up of two distinct sections: the upper plate and to Shinra itself, the real city, and then the impoverished, crime and monster riddled lower plate.
The lower plate is where the majority of FF7 Remake takes place. Avalanche, or at least a tiny rogue cell that Barret leads, is based in one of the eight sectors, rather appropriately in this case the seventh.
Over the course of what will likely be thirty to forty hours in one run, players will explore either openly or linearly sectors containing makeshift/DIY constructed neighborhoods and broken expressways filled with roaming creatures, humorous bandits and giant robot arms to control for traversal purposes.
You will see a bustling and more lively rendition of the well-remembered “Wall Market”, with shops, restaurants, parlors, a hotel, gym, Colosseum, and entertainment venue that was originally a brothel.
You will see the train and track system, the dirty underbelly of the plate filled with even more monsters infesting it, Shinra’s very own and beautifully oppressive Headquarters skyscraper.
You will receive a far more comprehensive idea of the City of Mako than you ever did in what was a far more limited experience back in the then impressive original PlayStation.
Cloud’s journey through Midgar begins as a way to increase his reputation as an up and coming mercenary, after leaving the SOLDIER program for reasons he cares not to discuss. While a super soldier, Cloud manages to be a mix of sterling professional despite his youth while having some pretty clear cases of perhaps getting way over his head.
Despite being the lead figure of one of the most beloved games of all time, Cloud himself has been for many a hit or miss representative of it. Is he too stoic, too mopey, not animated enough? Are his emotional issues and past legitimately moving and tragic and does he best characterize all of that without coming across as a derided “emo”?
It doesn’t help that much of FF7’s casts’ characterization has been changed by related media coming after the original’s release. The 2005 CG animated film, Advent Children, painted the original cast of the game in a way that often felt contrary to how they were once described and portrayed.
Along with his appearances in the Kingdom Hearts Disney crossover series, Cloud become known as a one or two dimensional moper whose visual bishonen’ visage masked any apparent depth he once had. To the delight of many old and new fans of the original game, Remake sets the record straight.
Yes, Cloud is still a soft-speaking stoic figure with a mysterious past on his shoulders, but he doesn’t seem like a static character either. Cloud does express more emotion and changes over the course of this first chapter in the Project and you can actually get the sense that Cloud is more than his mixed reputation would have you believe. He’s actually someone worth caring about again and the same is just as true if even more so for his returning group.
Aerith, the beautiful, sweet florist with a healthy amount of street smarts, is back to being a snarky, tougher than she looks magic-wielder who really does her best, upon meeting Cloud, to get through his figurative armor. Post FF7 97′, Aerith became characterized in later related material as this incorruptible pure angel who is just so…perfectly moral.
Aerith used to be a girly girl who was all too happy to surprise anyone and everyone with a tomboy attitude and surprising willingness to put herself in harm’s way for others. As befitting a remake, the old Aerith is back and hopefully here to stay. While her actress’ dialogue in combat may be occasionally annoying, as mentioned before, she is an utterly disarming figure and it is hard to really not care about her or like her in some fashion.
This leads into Tifa, Cloud’s childhood friend turned pugilist/bartender/member of Avalanche. Despite on the surface being much more masculine than Aerith, what with her white and black outfit, punching gloves always literally on hand and being a bartender in a rough part of town, Tifa is ironically more feminine than Aerith in some respects.
Being a surrogate mother of sorts to both the small band of Avalanche members and Barret’s cute as a button adopted daughter Marlene, she is sensitive, concerned over the more radical trajectory of her resistance movement and has a pretty obvious crush on Cloud.
Both genuinely seem like great romantic foils for Cloud and the game agonizes you over who Cloud should ultimately return the feelings to down the road. There is a third noncommited route to take, but that is much harder to figure out how to do without knowing ahead of time through an online guide.
Ultimately in the original, you could have up to eight companions for Cloud. Since this being only the first part, you get the first three and they enter your party only on the whims of the story.
The fourth companion, a cat/dog hybrid sentient being called Red XIII, comes along as a non-controllable “guest” member in the game’s lengthy final act. A lot of what I have said about these characters was already discussed in detail in a retrospective review of the original game in a lead-up to the Remake. Let me now discuss a big consideration of the Remake that you may or may not be on board with.
The game hints at and then makes it abundantly clear that this is not merely a HD, modern retelling of an old game. It’s not just a re-imagining or reconsideration of what the game once was. It’s a risky criticism and rebuke of what exactly people are looking for and receive when an old property sees new life. Namely, the 1:1 treatment.
One component that was completely missing from the original were the “Whispers”, ghostly, shadowy beings that are only seen if you make direct contact with them. They honestly resemble dementors, though less frightening.
As the game progresses, their involvement and purpose grows increasingly brazen as it becomes clear to those that played the original they’re railroading the characters and plot to more closely resemble the course of events of the original and will interfere if things appear to be veering away from the original’s script.
In one instance, Cloud is told by Barret that his services for Avalanche are no longer needed and that he is free to leave. The next day, the whispers attack Cloud and Avalanche and a resulting incident forces Cloud back into working with Barret and Tifa. The original has Cloud never being relieved from his job offer.
To the dismay of many, this implies if not confirms that the Remake is not set in the exact same universe or continuity of the 1997 version. Not too dissimilar to Star Trek’s polarizing “Kelvinverse”, we are experiencing an alternate universe take on FF7’s world that is admittingly still incredibly close in most regards to the original.
The whispers are trying to force this new Cloud’s journey to ultimately turn out exactly the way it did all those years ago back on the PS1. The changes the whispers make by interfering directly are small enough not to ruin their plans. Another huge change that ties into the whispers is the earlier appearance of FF7’s legendary antagonist, Sephiroth.
Sephiroth didn’t physically appear in the 1997 version until after Cloud and friends had left Midgar and only in a flashback tale that our blond hero recounts to the group to catch them up on what exactly they’re dealing with.
Before Cloud’s recollection, he is only mentioned, takes action before our heroes are there to see it and is made out to be a terrifying, genocidal figure. They’re not wrong. For the sake of time, don’t get me started on his complicated but indisputably apocalyptic motivations.
In the Remake, Sephiroth shows up early, so early that he debuts in the second of 18 chapters. He taunts Cloud with what he has done, what he hints at doing and ultimately, like the original, appears to be goading Cloud down a certain road for his benefit. Question is, what connection does Seph have with the whispers?
Well, of course I’m not going to tell you. It’s a new, perhaps not needed puzzlebox to make out and some of its mysteries still remain unanswered suitably as the game closes. This is after all, the end of the beginning.
Despite recreating and expanding upon what is in the grand scheme of things not a lot from the original game, FF7 Remake is still a lengthy, full price title that not only justifies what it has but even incentivizes replaying the whole thing through special rewards to those who beat it’s “hard mode”.
During the course of one “normal” playthrough, the player does more than level up and find better items and weapons to buy and discover, there is the triumphant return of the “materia” system.
Like it was before, materia is a magical collection of spheres that are slotted onto weapons and equipment to boost and give special abilities to all of your party. These range from allowing magic spells like wielding fire, ice, wind and fire to improving your health, amount of magic, stamina as well as gains in experience and money .
There is also certain materia-based maneuvers that can allow you to block and parry attacks better, scan your opponents for weaknesses, learn enemy skills, and steal items. The materia system alone and that it also involves leveling up of its own gives FF7 then and now a highly addictive side that makes it worth replaying if only to master certain builds of play or to see what completing certain materias can offer in terms of normally hidden bonuses.
It also helps immensely that the remake’s combat system is excellent. The difficulty, even on standard, is high enough that the game rarely makes you complacent in how you approach any fight. There is always a tactical, think ahead mindset to the dealings that makes you always conscious of how to use your party’s strengths.
Which character should be most on the offense or the defense? Who should be the healer? Who should scan and steal? Should or shouldn’t I reslot materia for a particular fight or after a member leaves Cloud’s side? What materia needs to be upgraded more than the other? Do I have enough space for all the materia I want or need?
These might seem frustrating but it instead encourages intelligence in how you fight and progress and makes you never take the game’s systems for granted. The game is hardly on a Dark Souls level of difficulty, but it’s hard enough that you should never underestimate what it will throw at you next.
As before and is often the case for the role playing game, Japanese or not, the game’s mix of desiring pragmatism and determination out of you is best demonstrated in the outstanding menagerie of boss fights that are among the most cinematic and grandiose I’ve experienced, perhaps ever.
Prepare to wallop or get walloped. (Image from Gamewith)
From the opening chapter fight against the infamous Scorpion robot to devious, surprise reimaginings of old foes, boss or not, to brand new surprise fights that come with the expanded scope of the game, FF7 Remake is rarely lacking for showing off its grandiose vision and living up to its ambitions, if it ever lacks at all.
The intelligence of the boss fights, mixed with the on-point banter of Cloud and Co. when confronting them makes overcoming them feel just so right. These aren’t just tests of skill, but pointed checkpoints on how far Cloud has gone and how much he and everyone else are rising as true champions for what they are fighting for.
Final Fantasy, even when it is sorely lacking in gameplay depth, characterization and narrative comprehension, like the much disliked thirteenth installment and its inexplicable two sequels, rarely squanders in presentation.
Its music in particular has long been praised as an enduring highlight if not attraction. The first eleven games or so were primarily composed by Nobuo Uematsu and his contribution to the series has made him all but a sacred cow, maybe even beyond just FF’s fan community. One of the tracks from Final Fantasy IV is taught and played in Japanese schools for example.
FF7 Remake was composed by Masashi Hamauzu, whose first sole Final Fantasy composition was for the aforementioned FF13. Even naysayers are generally kind to him as a replacement for Uematsu. Hamauzu rescores and amplifies with audio hardware three generations stronger the original FF7 score magnificently. It honestly sounds as if Uematsu had actually done the new versions for the most part.
Uematsu actually does contribute one brand new track called “Hollow” that is meant to represent Cloud. Strangely enough, the protagonist didn’t have a theme of his own back in the day even though all eight of his followers did. That’s one additional value to the Remake to pin credit for.
There is also original music made by Hamauzu and it is richly deserving of now being associated with Final Fantasy VII from now on. Two interconnected new additions continue to stick with me as standouts. Rather than go into detail on what they sound like and the context in which they are played, I’ll just link them here to let you make up your own mind.
It’s hard not to see FF7 Remake as nothing other than hopefully the beginning of a series of lovingly crafted RPG adventures that newly explore a long loved world and set of characters. It is only slightly let down from that pedestal.
The graphics while strong enough and capable of evoking the kind of majesty and wonder the original could only ever hint at is still marred by a game engine that perhaps is a little too old at this point. While it’s rendering of the characters is fantastic, more so for main or supporting ones than anything else, its rendering of the world can by comparison seem rough and almost shockingly lacking.
I am running a standard PS4, not the supposedly stronger “Pro” version and as of now, FF7 Remake remains a PlayStation exclusive. So there is no other system performance to compare it too. While the framerate rarely suffers and if anything is commendably solid especially during the visually elaborate boss fights, there are lots of instances of the areas loading textures, looking rather muddy and when looking at great big vistas.
This is most egregious when you’re traversing underneath the upper plate and can see the lower beneath you, what you see is not exactly…fantastic.
Image taken from Kotaku
On the one hand, that blurry, low detailed depiction of the slums beneath Cloud’s feet accidentally becomes a call-back to the similarly blurry but strangely beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds and vistas of the classic game. A Silver lining?
In spite of the addictive nature of the combat, item discovery and leveling systems that make up the Remake’s strong mechanical cores, the game can feel extended beyond what it needs to be. There are entire chapters that have no parallel with the original and some work better than others as additions. Sections that took perhaps less than ten minutes of gameplay can now go over an hour or hours.
In some cases, this is replaced as intended as a deepening of the characters and their interpersonal growth with each other as well as further delving into how Midgar works as a real place. All of this is just great.
But then they’re parts of some chapters which seem to go on just a little too long or put Cloud and the others in one dangerous predicament too many as it stalls what forward momentum was established. The best example comes from the super long penultimate chapter.
In Chapter 17, without spoiling any of the context, Cloud and his fellowship are trapped inside a scientific facility and are forced to make their way through several wards while fighting various monsters for the purpose of one very mad and creepy scientist’s research.
The purpose of these lengthy trials may bear fruit with a plot development later down in the Remake series, but as it stands now, it does stifle the generally tense atmosphere of what is happening at this particular point in the story. It doesn’t help that you can compare it to the far swifter chain of events from the original. At least the reward for getting through that relative slog is experiencing a string of excellent and in one case, supremely nostalgic, boss encounters.
Speaking of which, the final chapter is essentially one hair-raisingly difficult boss run with very little if any downtime after a certain point. It does hammer home the importance of being truly prepared in every respect, a tradition for the Japanese style of role playing game.
But make no mistake, the final hours of part one of Final Fantasy 7’s remake is what most contributes to the “exhausting” part of my takeaway.
The biggest and most important takeaway is that for now, Final Fantasy VII’s long desired remake is anything but disappointing. Considering the general consensus that the series had been declining in quality since either the twelfth or especially thirteenth titles, it’s great to see the quintessential Japanese RPG get it’s heart back as well as a commitment to being much more than pretty spectacle.
No matter what comes next and how long it takes to arrive, Square-Enix is not about to make you ambivalent about FF7’s return any time soon. If anything, they have successfully made Final Fantasy once again the game of its genre to talk about.
Unless that game’s name is called Persona.